Monday, March 31, 2014

Getting into Dodge

Dodge City, KS – Before we headed out this morning, we checked with Jessie in the RV park office to see if there were any weather concerns.  There was a pretty stiff wind, and we wanted to be sure it wouldn’t escalate into anything dangerous.  Jessie said there was a wind advisory, but that our route was into calmer territory, so we could proceed without worrying.

As we eyed the brown blur on the horizon and saw pieces of dried cornstalks flying across the highway along with the tumbleweed, we reminded ourselves of her words.  We even pulled over when we heard something bump against the RV. Opening the door without having it ripped off its hinges was a hard-won battle, but once outside, we didn’t see any damage, so we wrestled with the door to get back inside and carried on our way.

Just south of Oakley on Highway 83, we passed the magnificent sculpture of Buffalo Bill Cody, with a rifle to his shoulder, chasing a bison.  It was around these parts that he won the buffalo-hunting contest that entitled him to his nickname way back when.

Although “flat” is the main adjective in describing the Kansas terrain, we did encounter a few places where the ground dipped into a riverbed or rose to a rounded hill or two.  We even saw a couple of low sculpted rock formations, and saw signs for the turnoff to see the rock monument nearby.  Having seen a massive number of same in Utah, we continued on our way.

We left the 83 and turned east on Highway 50 at Garden City. Just a few miles west of the city is Holcomb, the small town where the Clutter family was murdered by two ex-cons in 1959.  Their story was the subject of Truman Capote’s best-selling book, “In Cold Blood”.

Huge grain elevators, farm equipment stores, pickup trucks and vast expanses of combed earth ready for spring planting gave clear evidence of the agricultural importance of this state.  As we approached Cimarron, we began to see feed lots with literally thousands of cattle in huge pens, fattening up for their transformation into steaks and hamburgers.

A silhouette of a cowboy posse is set on a hill at the western edge of town with “Dodge City” in big letters at its base. The town was originally the site of Fort Dodge, built to protect wagon trains on the Santa Fe Trail and to furnish supplies for soldiers fighting the Indian wars on the plains. Colonel Richard Dodge was the first commander of the fort, and he’s now immortalized in this iconic town.

Gunsmoke Trav-L-Park is the name of our RV campground and on the porch of the office build-ing are dis-plays of hay bales, milk cans, old saddles and wagon wheels. The usual map of the RV sites includes a notation of “Chester’s Grave”, so I went out to have a look after supper. There next to the porch was a weathered stone with “Chester 1879” and, protruding from the ground was a leg and a cowboy boot!

Our first order of the day after setting up was to find some groceries, so we got a glimpse of the outskirts on the way to WalMart. We’ll be seeing more tomorrow!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Zoo for sale

Oakley, KS – Our one-night stay has turned into two.  Time for some R&R in a peaceful spot, where the grasses blow, the robins chirp, the rabbits cavort and the Zanins take it easy.

We slept late this morning, in part because of the time zone change. It would have been a normal rising time if we hadn’t lost that hour on entering the Central Time Zone. The forecast for today was 82, but I don’t think it got much higher than 72.  Still, that’s a pleasant change from the high-altitude chill we’ve had for several days.

Our laid-back morning meant we were available for a Skype conversation with Val’s brother John and our sister-in-law Fawn, in Florida. It was great to catch up on their news. I still marvel that we can chat like that, with one side of the conversation a thousand miles from the other.

Later on, I took a stroll across the highway to the truck stop on the other side, and discov-ered that right next door to it was the Prairie Dog Town animal menagerie we’d seen advertised on the highway yesterday. On bright red wooden signs were large yellow letters declaring “Five-legged live animals! Buffalo! World’s Largest Prairie Dog! Only 20 (10, 5) Miles Ahead!” The only thing was, the menagerie was closed, and in front was a large sign saying “Zoo For Sale”.

I meandered out to the back lot of the truck stop to see what I could see, and there were some pens with a few bison grazing.  However, between me and them was a field at the edge of which was posted a sign saying “Rattle Snake Habitat” and another saying “Private Property”.  So I snapped my photos with the long lens and ventured no further. I thought I saw a large turkey in another pen, but it was kind of far off.  I do hope those creatures are still being well cared-for despite the drop in audience attendance.

Other than that, it’s been a very quiet day. So I’ll share my photos and sign off for now!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Tumbleweed territory

Oakley, KS – We’re in a new state and a new time zone tonight, in the heart of cowboy country. Strong winds whistled across the wide plains that we drove through today, scooping up balls of tumbleweed and sending them bouncing across the highway.

We had a couple of delays in getting out today. One was a cute little bunny rabbit that sat quietly in front of the RV twitching its little nose, even after Val started the engine!  He had to get out and encourage the little puff ball to move along before he could get moving.

We had been waiting for the RV park office to open, which during its winter hours is not until 10 am, so that we could get the propane tank filled before setting out.  When you have to run the furnace all night in these cool times, the contents of the LP gas tank get used up. Finally, at 10 o’clock, the office opened, and that’s when we learned that the guy who’s trained to pump LP gas didn’t come on till three in the afternoon!

The feed store in town had an LP filling station, we were told, so we drove in only to find out they only filled portable tanks, not the ones built in to the RV.  Besides, there was no space to pull up to the tank anyway. So, we headed out to the interstate with an eye out for a place where we could fill up before reaching our destination.

Val had to keep a strong hold on the steer-ing wheel on I-70 because of the gust-ing wind.  Every time we went through an underpass, the wind sucked us to the right and pushed us left again when we exited.  On those huge, wide-open plains, there’s just nothing around that can slow the wind down.

People planted windbreaks of evergreen trees around their farmhouses as a bit of a barrier, and along the few rivers along our route there were clumps of cottonwood trees, but other than that, the land was unbroken save for the yellowed stubble of last year’s corn crops. Some of the fields were sprouting green, especially the ones supported by irrigation equipment.

We spotted a few pump jacks, but the main output of the land appears to be crops. Huge silos and piles of cylindrical hay bales were a common sight.

We found a truck stop before our turnoff where we could fill up the propane tank, so we’ll be cosy all night tonight – although we’re told it won’t be as cold as it has been at higher elevations the last few nights. That means we won’t have to disconnect the water hose.

Here in Oakley, there is a museum of dinosaur bones and fossils which we thought we’d visit tomorrow, but it is closed on Sundays.  There’s also a monument to Buffalo Bill, which we’ll see on our way out of town.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Surviving the Dust Bowl and the I-70

Strasburg, CO – Both of us let out a gasp when we had our first look outside this morning. The ground around the RV and the car were white with snow!  The sun was already melting it by the time we were ready to head in to Denver again, although we did have to dig out the snow brush to clear the rest away.

Our first destination was the History Colorado Center, and based on the lineup of yellow school buses, we were prepared for the lively crowds of school children inside.  The floor of the main hall of this museum is a huge topographical map of the state, where a very pleasant docent named Dani welcomed us and told us what to expect on our visit.

The Center is a great place for kids to learn about their state. “Destination Colorado” replicates a small agricultural town in the 1920s where kids can shop at the general store, climb into a real Model T Ford, see what it’s like to milk a cow and learn about life on the farm.

On the upper floor “Colorado Stories” describes experiences of various residents, including hard rock miners, traders at an early fort, and wartime Japanese internees. It was impressive to see the candid accounts of prejudice against the Japanese, as well as the African Americans who were targeted by the Ku Klux Klan. There was also a simulated Rocky Mountain ski jump where visitors could step onto a pair of boards and watch the steep slope unfold on a screen in front of them.

We stepped inside a farmhouse kitchen where, with voices, video and sound effects, we relived the “Black Sunday” Dust Bowl storm of the 1930s when the sky went dark and winds howled for hours. There was also a hands-on display about the importance of water to the region, and a replica of a ski lodge. 

The state capitol building was our next destination, and it was a short walk away so we left the car in the parking lot by the Center. A fierce wind whipped at our hair as we walked, though the sun was shining. We noted the wide range of clothing choices made by Denver residents – some were in parkas, while others had on shorts and t-shirts!

Our arrival at the magnificent capitol building, with its gold-plated dome, coincided with the start of a public tour, so we attached ourselves to the group and tried to hear the soft voice of our young guide, describing the two houses, the brass chandeliers and large paintings of prominent Colorado citizens.

By this time we were ready to head back to the RV park, a 40-minute drive from downtown. The trip ended up taking much longer because of a crash on the Interstate! Fortunately, when we gave up waiting, we were able to bushwhack across to an off-ramp and try to find an alternate route.  It was just plain luck that the direction we chose led to a junction with the I-70 which got us past the huge tie-up. Whew! The open road and big sky were a welcome sight after our tiresome wait.

Blue bears and free money

Thursday, March 27, 2014
[We had upload problems yesterday.]
Strasburg, CO – The drumming of raindrops on the RV roof in the night seemed to be a portent of the coming day, but it proved to be perfectly fine, weatherwise. We drove in to the city to find out what points of interest we might like to see, and to connect with the bus tour we’d arranged for in the afternoon.

The Denver Visitor Center is on one corner of the 16th Street Mall, a stretch of several blocks dedicated to pedestrians. Along either side of the wide walking area is a corridor for the free shuttle buses that offer lifts from one end to the other, so although there are no cars, one does have to watch out for the buses – and because they are hybrid vehicles, they don’t make a lot of noise as they approach!

Armed with a city map and some ideas of places to see, we explored the mall and some of the special sites in the area.  One of these was the Federal Reserve Money Museum, with free admission and displays of paper currency designs, counterfeiting prevention, and the history of the Reserve.  At the entrance was a large bin filled with bags of…money! And a sign, encouraging visitors to help themselves! Each bag held about $165, quite useful if one had the time to stick all the thin slivers of paper back together again!

A little further down the street was the Colorado Convention Center. Probably its most important claim to fame, beyond the thousands of people who attend conventions in it and the topics they discuss, is the 40-foot blue bear that stands outside, paws on the huge windows, peeking inside to see what’s going on.  Its name is “I See What You Mean” and was created by a local artist who had once seen a black bear peeking inside a house in much the same way.  It reflected the artist’s curiosity about conventions that take place inside.  The Blue Bear has become a local icon.

After we had lunch, we connected with our Gray Line tour of Denver – and discovered we were the only customers today! So we had a private tour from driver Gerald, who was very knowledgeable about the sights, and tailored our visit to our particular interests.  We saw the golden dome of the state capitol, the home of Molly Brown, who didn’t sink in the Titanic disaster, the huge flock of cormorants that reside at the City Park (and just returned from their winter break), the two huge sports arenas for Denver’s home teams, and much more.

We learned that Denver has a large German community, which explained the many beer-and-bratwurst restaurants we saw, and that the high-tech field was a key employer. We visited Cranmer Park, with its flagstone platform displaying the names of the entire array of mountains to the west of it, and where a tilted sundial taller than a man provides the time of day all year round, in spring and summer on its upper face and the rest of the year on the back of it.
It was a comprehensive and fascinating visit, and now we feel much better acquainted with this attractive western city.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The pair went over the mountain

Strasburg, CO – We’re in a small community east of Den-ver, and the countryside here could not present a greater contrast with what we saw today if it tried. From our start west of the Rocky Mountains to this ultra-flat spot, we’ve risen to 11,350 feet in altitude and down again. We are still on the Colorado Plateau, so even though it’s flat, it’s up at 6,000 feet.

When we got up this morning and stepped outside, we could see our breath. The weather was good, though off in the distance there were quite a few clouds, some of which were wispy at the edges, signifying some sort of precipitation. With a route heading into the thick of the Rockies, we sincerely hoped we would not encounter snow on the road. We’d checked carefully before leaving, so we had some solid information to go on in any case.

Before we got to the serious mountain environment, we passed some farmers’ fields, and in one I spotted two clumps of animals. One was clearly a herd of cows, grazing contentedly, and the other, I finally realized, was a herd of elk, just a short distance away from the cows, enjoying the same field! I guess neither group felt threatened by the other, and there certainly was plenty of grass!

Once again, as the highway wound its way through the steep mountain passes, new vistas of sharply-peaked, snow-topped mountains came into view, like a series of picture postcards.  The higher we climbed, the more snow we saw on the ground, at first in the shadows of the evergreens and in the sheltered valleys, and then on meadows and roadsides. The outdoor temperature dipped to 1.5 degrees Celsius (and then, at the end of our journey, it was up to 21.5!).

When we reached ski country, we passed towns with chalets and hotels catering to downhill sports enthusiasts. They almost had an alpine look to them, with the tall evergreens and white mountains behind them.

We had passed this way before in 2011, and we did recognize a few landmarks, but one I’m sure wasn’t there last time was the snowboard course at the ski resort town of Vail – a huge half-pipe snow formation high on the mountainside with dozens of tiny figures zigging and zagging down. The ski-lifts were running busily, and in the town we could see skiers in their snow garb waiting for the bus to take them to the top.

Flashing message boards appeared along our route warning of a highway closure due to road maintenance on a tunnel at Idaho Springs and to expect delays.  Sure enough, as we rounded a bend we could see a line of red tail-lights as a long stretch of vehicles slowed to a halt. After a few minutes we could tell it would be a while, so we turned off the engine. Finally, traffic began to move again.

About an hour later, we were crossing Denver and driving past farmers’ fields that stretched all the way to the flat horizon. Somehow, it feels like we are much closer to home now that the Rockies are behind us. It was lovely to see the big sky full of huge clouds, and all that land.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Cool peaks, hot springs

Glenwood Springs, CO – We’re nestled on a hillside RV park with views in either direction along Interstate 70 of snow-topped mountains and the sparkling Colorado River.  The air is fresh and the sky is clear, and we had a good drive today.

It was a short one too – we got to the park in time for lunch – but we are trying to gauge our travels so that we can get over the Rockies without doing so on a long driving day.  It will be enough to go up to 11,000 feet and down again through mountain passes without covering a long distance as well.

As we headed east today toward the Utah-Colorado state line, we passed the turnoff for Moab, where two more spectacular canyon state parks are located.  Our friends Scott and Mary Jane tempted us sorely with encouraging words about them, and eye-popping photos of their visits there, but we felt it was time to head on.  We have to leave something for the next visit!

The moonscape terrain in those last few miles of Utah made our departure a bit easier; we so enjoyed everything we saw and visited while in that unique part of the world. A contingent of pronghorn antelopes reported for duty on one of the last hilltops to bid us farewell.

Almost as soon as we entered Colorado, the geography changed to lush green pastures against a majestic mountain backdrop. We pulled over at the visitor center in Fruita to pick up maps and information, and asked the host there what the smoke was all about in the valley we were passing through.

He told us that this was the time of year when farmers are burning off dry grass and weeds before planting season begins, and that highway crews were doing the same.  It made for a rather hazy view of Fruita, but we did see plenty of orchards and vineyards as we drove through.

After setting up in the RV park and having lunch, we headed off in the car for some groceries.  Glenwood Springs is a pretty little town with a charming historic downtown and lots of hotels.  Its proximity to the popular ski resorts is one reason for this, but there are also hot springs here that draw visitors.

With our shopping done, we headed back and passed a resort with a huge swimming pool, just jammed with swimmers, plus a big waterslide. The temperature here wasn’t much more than 65 degrees, so it surprised me to see this until I realized this must be the hot spring they were talking about in the tourist literature!

Up on the mountain side we could see a cable-car ski lift in full operation, even though there didn’t appear to be more than a sprinkling of snow at the top.  However, I spotted a roller coaster up top, so we figured there was more than snow sports drawing visitors to that height. We’ll be hitting the heights soon enough, so we continued our drive back to our cosy home on wheels.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Picture book pages

Green River, UT – Today we comple-ted the 124-mile All-American Road and moved clo-ser to Utah’s eastern edge, and treated our-selves to another fabulous scenic drive in the process.

With an early start, we were able to appreciate the effect of the sun’s low angle on the landscape, and the contrast of deep shadows and brightly-lit rock faces as it rose in the sky.  We also saw ice at the edges of streams and snow in the bush as the highway rose to higher altitudes.  A couple of times, we passed farmers’ fields crusted in white ice where the irrigation systems had been running before the sun got warm enough to melt it.  We smiled as we passed a lone horse, standing next to the crusty field, wondering how he was supposed to get a drink in these conditions.

Highway 12 meandered up and down through high plains, deep valleys and mountain passes, switching back in serpentine patterns as it climbed and descended.  Every time we came to a blind curve or hilltop, it was like waiting for a surprise to reveal itself.  Gradually, as we turned around the bend, a whole new array of rock formations came into view, or, at the top of the hill, a vast landscape of peaceful valleys, rolling hills, rocky monuments and purple mountains far in the distance, dazzled us once again.

We pulled over multiple times to drink in the beauty all around. Each spot was unique, and I began to think I was going to end up taking a photo of every rock in Utah at the rate I was going!  But they were all so amazing!

The variety of the ter-rain we cov-ered today was incre-dible.  High plains farm-lands. Pine-forested mountains. Rock-bor-dered gor-ges. Flat, red-sanded desert. Desolate, grey moonscapes.  It was as if we were turning the pages of a life-sized picture book every few miles, where nothing resembled what had come before.

On the plain, Val spotted a jackrabbit on the shoulder of the highway. I didn’t manage to see it, but seconds later, there were three of them, and then five more, all caught unawares by our arrival, and bouncing madly into the tall grass.

Then, in the pine-forested mountain section, I saw a deer.  Then we saw six or eight of them by the road. We’d never seen so many together, and Val was able to pull over so I could snap a picture.  The deer eyed me apprehensively but stayed put for a time before deciding they’d best move on – long enough for a couple of good shots. (We’d seen a herd of eight or ten elk between Bryce Canyon and our RV park a couple of days ago, too, which I forgot to mention. Quite a sight.)

It was at the crossroads of Highway 12 and Highway 24 that we saw a roadside eatery and stopped for lunch.  By this time it was warm enough for us to eat at the outdoor table in the sun. What a treat.

Not long afterward, we saw the sign for Capitol Reef State Park, another protected territory full of rocky castles and turrets, striped mesas and slot canyons, all served up right along the highway, free of charge. Amazing.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Of creeks and crags

Cannonville, UT – When Val went out and checked our water hose this morning, it was crunchy with ice, so our precaution to detach it last night and drain the pipes was merited. Tonight the park management will be cutting off the water supply before dark, because the low is expected to hit 23 degrees Fahrenheit. New neighbours in the campground are planning to spend the night in little pup tents; I hope they have warm sleeping bags!

There was one more part of Bryce Canyon we wanted to see today – the Mossy Cave nature walk, located outside the park proper on the road toward our campground. The path was steep but not long, climbing to an alcove of rock where large pillars of ice fill the gap between floor and ceiling. The plaque next to the cave said it’s sometimes late June before the pillars melt, and the cool, shady hollow fosters the growth of moss that gives the spot its name.

A lovely sound of trickling water graced our ears, from these icicles as well as other rivulets seeping through the rocks.  The water gathered at the bottom in a creek bed known as Tropic Ditch. We learned that the Mormon settlers who lived here took two years to dig, by hand, a channel from a fork of the Sevier River 10 miles away to their farms and homesteads in the valley.  The land was well suited to their farming needs, except they needed a more dependable source of water. Even to this day, water flowing through the ditch supports the crops of the area.

After a picnic lunch, eaten in the car where it was warmer, we headed for Kodachrome Basin State Park, nine miles beyond our RV park. The sun was bright and there was not a cloud in the sky, although they did start to accumulate as the day progressed.  We passed a wide valley with farms and open range, studded with sagebrush, on the way to the park.

A crew of photographers from National Geographic made a trek to this area in 1948, taking spectacular photos of the striated rocks, hoodoos, chimneys, wind-sculpted walls and desert vegetation. They were the ones to call the region Kodachrome Flat, after the new brand of film they were using. The name, with the term ‘basin’ to encompass the larger tract of land, became official a few years later once the state received the Kodak company’s blessing for its use.

In the visitor center at the park entrance a cartoon from the New Yorker in 2006 shows rangers removing the “Kodachrome Basin” sign and replacing it with “Digitally Enhanced Pixelated Basin” when Kodak discontinued its film!  Well, even without Kodak film, the pictures I took today of the park look like postcard or calendar material, simply because everything was so gorgeous.

We were delighted to find a nature trail with signs posted every few feet describing the plants and their characteristics – and a trail on the flat that didn’t leave us panting at this high elevation. The variety was amazing, and the list of medications, food sources and applications of the plants most impressive. So were the wonderful rock formations, in all their amazing colours, that surrounded us.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Nature's mighty sculptors

Cannonville, UT – It was a pretty chilly night last night, and we knew our propane supply was run-ning low. The person qualified to operate the LP filling station was not available when we pulled in to the RV park, although we had phoned ahead to ensure we could fill up on arrival. We had to rely on the electric furnace, but it works with a heat pump that is less efficient if the temperature dips below 38F. Still, we did stay warm till morning, when we pulled in our slides and stowed everything to drive the 50 feet to the LP filling station. Then we had to return to our site and set up all over again! The joys of RVing!

With that task attended to, we headed out to visit Bryce Canyon, about 12 miles from our park.  It was sunny with big puffy clouds in the sky and the air was clear, although cool.  We stopped at the visitor center for a bit of orientation before heading in. We arrived just in time for a short film about Bryce.

We learned that the canyon is really a plateau, part of a huge uprising of land covering Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico in prehistoric times. The ebb and flow of water and the pressure of different layers of sand and rock over the centuries resulted in rock formations that are still evolving today.

The national park is a long tract of land with about 20 miles of road from north to south and a rise of 1,200 feet of elevation. At this time of year, people use their per-sonal vehicles in the park, but in the busy season, shuttle buses reduce the traffic somewhat.

It’s hard to put into words the breathtaking vistas we saw today.  Even photos fail to impart the sense of grandeur and massive scope of the turrets, crevices, colours, sculpted ridges, hoodoos, cliffs and overlooks we stopped at.  Snow laced the tops of many of the textured forma-tions today, adding white to the many colours of strata before us. 

I was glad of the scarf I’d tied around my neck this morning and my layered clothing as the wind whistled about at the high altitudes.  Both Val and I had to catch our breath a few times, an effect of being at eight or nine thousand feet of elevation.  We took one of the trails down into the canyon at Sunset Point, a steep descent that zig-zagged past rust-coloured walls, grooved by centuries of rains and snows.  Of course, that meant we had to climb up again, hence the pounding heart and panting! We were not alone; we could hear other visitors huffing and puffing as well. But it was well worth it.

At each site along the route, different for-mations awaited. One had a huge stone arch.  Another had turrets like a fairy castle. A third presented a pa-norama that stretched below us to a distant horizon of blue moun-tains where high clouds sifted down wisps of snow. We were en-chanted.

“Life Elevated” is the motto on many Utah licence plates. We know exactly what that means.

Friday, March 21, 2014

All-American Road

Cannonville, UT – On the second day of spring, in a part of the world where flowers are blooming and trees are coming into leaf, we had the dubious pleasure today of passing fields white with snow and rock faces covered in ice. Fortunately, none of the wintry stuff affected the roadbed along our route.

We know we will be seeing more wintry weather in the days to come, so I guess this was kind of like dipping your toe in the water, but we are in no rush.  There was a chill in the air this morning, as there has been for several days, but it always warms up to the 70s before the day is through.

Our route today took us northward along Interstate 15 until we passed through Cedar City, at which point we turned east onto State Highway 14. After that turn, the highway climbed steadily into Dixie National Forest, a mountainous region that looked a lot like Canada. From time to time there were pullouts where we could stop, get out and really take in the fabulous vistas.

Val was using his new watch that features an altimeter, and as we climbed, he read out the elevation. The highest figure we hit was 10,100 feet – the greatest height so far on this trip! There was a blanket of snow over everything, right to the side of the highway, but as I said to Val, it was old snow.  Clearly it had not fallen recently, so we were in no danger of being engulfed in a snow squall or anything. Must keep the driver’s spirits up!

After reaching the peak, we began to descend again on the other side.  Once we were in the valley, we turned north for about 20 miles on Highway 89. Then we headed east again on Highway 12, and the terrain changed almost immediately. We stopped at a pullout where there were some visitor plaques that described what was ahead.  Some of the most spectacular and unique natural wonders in the entire country were on this route, they said.

In fact, the Federal Highway Administration has designated Highway 12 as an All-American Road – one that has one-of-a-kind features so exceptional that they qualify as a destination unto themselves. We covered less than 20 miles so far of its 124-mile length, and we concur! 

Rust-red walls of sculpted rock, topped with hoodoo knobs of amazing shapes, greeted us within the first 100 feet after the turn-off.  As we continued along, we saw more of these, sometimes made of white stone, as well as mountain ranges with colourful strata, contrasting with the deep green of pine trees growing in the folds and cracks.  I barely turned the camera off the whole trip.

We passed the turnoff for Bryce Canyon before reaching the RV park, but we will be back with the little car for a closer look.  Already the scenery was giving us a foretaste of what we will be seeing.

Choosing the pictures of the day is often challenging and that’s the case especially today.  Once again, we have a spectacular view from our RV park, and it looks like it will be peaceful sleeping, as the road is not a busy one.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The other side of the tunnel

Hurricane, UT – Who would ex-pect to see ostriches in south-western Utah? Yet there they were, more than a dozen of them, with their spindly legs, fluffy tails and long necks, quietly grazing in a paddock by the highway.  We were on our way again to Zion National Park, to see the portion of the park we had yet to visit, which included a mile-long trip through solid rock.

The large birds were a nice distraction for me. Tunnels are not my favourite thing, especially if they are so long that you can’t see the end of them. Having other things like ostriches and breathtaking scenery to occupy my thoughts was helpful as we approached the park.

When we visited on Tuesday, we followed the main road northward seven miles into the canyon.  Today, we took the Mount Carmel Highway, heading west.  It took us on a series of long switchbacks up the side of the canyon until at last the black opening of the tunnel came into view.

Park rangers posted at either end of the tunnel regulate the traffic going through. Strict regulations apply to the height and length of the vehicles. Whenever there is a bus or RV, the tunnel becomes a one-way passage, so they can straddle the centre line to avoid scraping the sloped ceiling.

The highway and tunnel were constructed between 1927 and 1930 to allow traffic to pass through Zion and on to Bryce and the Grand Canyon.  Rather than work from one end of the tunnel to the other, they started in the middle with a stope, the way miners start a mineshaft, and worked their way out.

Back to that black opening.  We had a bus and three cars ahead of us, so our passage was going to be one way.  I braced myself as we were swallowed in darkness, and our eyes adjusted to the dimness. Headlights and reflectors on the tunnel walls helped a bit, but the best thing was the discovery that several large openings had been made to the outside along the length – for light, but also to allow builders to discard fill and rock into the canyon as work progressed.

Three or four times along that dark shaft, glimpses of the outside light made all the difference!  And, once we were out the other end, a whole new completely different park awaited.  Where the other section was mostly vertical, all the lines in the rock here were horizontal – great layers of red rock, like ocean waves, stacked to the sky and punctuated by bright green pine trees and other small plants.
Some formations looked like chimney pots, and others like coils of a soft ice cream cone on a giant scale. It was amazing to see what the plants chose to root in – the smallest crevice, where water could collect, was all they needed to sprout and grow.

Even knowing I had to go back through that mile-long tunnel, I was glad we hadn’t missed this wonderful sight.  And I was glad those tunnel builders had thought of giving us windows. Oh yes, and I was grateful for ostriches!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Where bluebirds fly

Hurricane, UT – In a farmer’s field on our way to Kolob Canyons this morning, we passed an irrigation apparatus – the kind that looks like a mile-long pipe strung across a field with bicycle wheels every ten feet or so – that was glittering with ice, as was the grass around it.  Someone must have turned it on before realizing how cold it was this morning.

This set of canyons is officially part of Zion National Park, although it has a separate entrance north of the main park and is much smaller. It still offers visitors a breathtaking vista of cliffs, buttes, mesas, streams and multicoloured strata, not to mention a huge variety of plant and animal life.

The magical part about today’s visit was the fact that we almost had the place to ourselves. It was cold enough for me to turn up my jacket collar and retract my hands into the cuffs of my sweater as we took one of the walking trails in the park. There were other visitors, and cars were parked at the trail heads, but it was by no means crowded.  The sun was bright and the sky was perfectly clear, and in our walk we could hear the wind whispering in the pinyon pines and the cheerful conversations of the birds.

Kolob Canyon is the home of the Western Bluebird and the Mountain Bluebird, and I’m pretty sure we saw both today.  They never stayed still enough to get a photo, but they were a brilliant shade of blue as they swooped past, or lighted on a branch and took off again seconds later.

The road into Kolob is only five miles long, and there are three walking trails. The park guide provides a list of the trails with the return distances and approximate time to walk them.  Some of the most spectacular rock formations, unfortunately, are at the end of a four-hour, 14-mile hike, which we were not quite ready to undertake today!  We opted to satisfy ourselves with the Timber Creek Overlook Trail, a one-mile round trip, which was no small prize.

At the peak we could look out on the craggy peaks of Kolob to our left, the Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness, dusted with snow, on the right and far, far off on the horizon in front of us, the northern rim of the Grand Canyon!  And down below was the silver ribbon of the La Verkin Creek, meandering along the sandy floor of the canyon.  It was spectacular.

Our route home took us through the small town of Toquerville, where we passed a row of glorious fruit trees covered in bright purple blossoms. Other gardens sported sunny daffodils, and the cottonwood trees were coming out in a fresh spring green.

After picking up a few groceries, we returned to the RV and pulled out our maps, atlas, campground catalogs and laptop to plot the next leg of our journey.  I was surprised to see that we had actually come by this way before when we drove back from Las Vegas in 2011. We will be varying the route a little bit, just to maximize our exposure to this beautiful land.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Canyon fodder

Hurricane, UT – Strong gusts of wind rocked the RV through most of the night last night. Sometimes it felt like someone was standing outside, repeatedly shoving the side of the motorhome! Although you’d think being rocked is a good thing to encourage sleep, it took me a long time to drift off.

It was a bit calmer when we got up this morning, but much cooler than yesterday. The thought of visiting a canyon with icy winds tunneling between the rock walls and blasting us was not terribly appealing even though the sun was out.  We had some shopping to do in town, so we took it easy today in hopes of better weather conditions tomorrow.

The clerk at the bulk food store, it turns out, lived in Toronto many years ago, and really enjoyed her stay there. Yesterday, outside of Zion park, we stopped for an ice cream cone and found out that our server had lived in Edmonton for 18 months.  And when we were in the park, we saw the strangest motorhome – it looked like a reconditioned garbage truck by its odd shape, and was made with overlapping plates of metal held together with rivets – and it had Ontario licence plates! It is a small world.

After stopping at a cafĂ© for lunch, we headed for the same cinema we’d been to the other day; this time we saw August: Osage County with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Chris Cooper, among others.  The subtitle of the movie describes it rather well: “Misery Loves Family”.  It would make any family look positively ideal by comparison. The acting was very well done and the Oklahoma farm country setting plus the dark interior scenes enhanced the story line quite effectively. It did not, however, leave me aglow with satisfaction!

On our way to the ci-nema, we passed the blossoming tree that is our lead photo for today. There are trees like it every-where here!  And there are robins about as well, al-though I’ve only heard them.  I have yet to actually see one.  We were visited the other evening by a flock of quails, scurrying under a picnic table at the next site looking, perhaps, for some wayward crumbs to nibble.  They look so funny with their little topknots.

The new weather station on our wall tells us tomorrow may be a nicer day for canyon fodder. Let’s hope.

Monday, March 17, 2014

O'Zanins in Zion

Hurricane, UT – “Nice green,” said a passing hiker on the trail at Zion National Park today, as he passed Val and me with our bright green St Patrick’s Day t-shirts. Val thought he was talking about the buds swelling on the tree he was looking at; everywhere there is that bright green blush of spring at the tips of branches that have been bare for so long.

We picked a great day to tour the park; the March Break weekend crowds were gone, so there were no lineups at the entrance gate, and, although parked cars did line the road in a number of trail heads in the park, we didn’t feel overwhelmed by the humanity.

What did overwhelm us was the magnificent beauty of this deep canyon, walled with striated cliffs carved by a river that has flowed here for millions of years. You could almost hear the French horns and classical music that play in movie soundtracks whenever scenes of natural grandeur fill the screen!

A better sound track for us today was the rushing water of the Virgin River, tumbling over rocks along its sandy riverbed, and the chatter of bold squirrels that stood their ground as hikers walked past.  A clear blue sky and perfect temperature added to the enjoyment of our visit, even though the display on our new weather station showed clouds dripping rain this morning. (The booklet did say to wait up to 48 hours for an accurate reading….).

We visited the Grand Canyon in 2011, and my first look at the massive array of coloured mesas and gorges literally brought me to tears at its awesome beauty.  Zion was completely different – we entered along the canyon floor rather than looking down from a lofty rim, and somehow that made it more intimate.  The walls embraced us and drew us in, while the Grand Canyon stood silent and aloof.

The canyon was home to native peo-ples for thousands of years. Peo-ple of Euro-pean extrac-tion arrived much later – Mormons looking for a place to practise their religion without persecution. They are responsible for the biblical names given to the notable rock formations in the park – Altar of Sacrifice, Angels’ Landing, the Three Patriarchs, and the park’s name, meaning “place of sanctuary”.

We took the trail at the end of the seven-mile road into the park, with a name right out of an adventure movie: the Temple of Sinawava. It was an easy walk of a mile and a half, following the curves of the Virgin River.  The riverbed and trail cut a wide path to begin with, and narrowed as we reached the end. More adventurous hikers could go beyond the level trail to a section without guardrails and where the canyon walls loomed much closer, but they also had to watch for flash floods that could happen at any time. We were happy just to turn around and enjoy a whole new vista of the trail as we walked back in the opposite direction.

It was good that our visit was before April 1, because after that date visitors can only see the park via shuttle bus. The numbers are just too great to allow all that traffic in during the high season. More trails, vistas and roads await us on our next visit.  We couldn’t do it all in one day!
P.S. Here’s a shot from the Armstrong Redwoods Forest I saved for today – Happy St Paddy’s Day!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A day of rest

Hurricane, UT – When we got back from church today, we had ideas about tour-ing various points of interest in the area, but it was a per-fectly beautiful day and we had no particular agenda, so we decided to take the day off!

We sat out on our lawn chairs, in the shade of the RV and with the breathtaking mountains to our left, changing colours as the sun played on their various contours, and put our feet up with a good book.  It was warm enough not to need sweaters or jackets, and a pleasant breeze was blowing, carrying with it the warbles of quail in the distance.

One of the things we bought yesterday was a wall clock for the RV which includes a weather station.  We found just the right hardware to hang it on the wall without making any holes, so today we went about reading the instructions for the hook hardware and for the weather station.  There is a remote sensor that goes outside, as well as the clock part inside, so you can read on it what the temperature is indoors and out, and even whether it’s going to rain or shine. The installation went very well, and we’ve been checking it with great interest.

For example, it was 81 degrees outside while we were eating our supper, but once the sun was down it plummeted to 61! That’s just fun, but there are times when it is very helpful to know what’s going on out there before opening the RV door.

After a pleasant interlude in our lawn chairs, we set off for a short drive to have a better look at Quail Creek State Park, about a mile from the RV park.  The creek feeds a lake, which is really a reservoir, formed by a dam at the south end. We’ve passed the “lake” several times since we got here, and it’s amazing how the colour of the water changes. It’s been gun-metal grey at dusk, navy blue at high noon and a startling turquoise green in late afternoon. Beautiful, and as we learned when we strolled down to the water’s edge, cold.

The creek was a draw-ing point for the small community that started up here in the late 1860s, led by Moses Harris from San Bernardino, California. The six families who came used the endless supply of rocks in the area to build their barns and homes and the fences that set off their farms. Ruins of some of those houses still stand along the highway near the RV park; the families drifted away after too many disastrous floods from the creek.  But the town’s name remains: Harrisburg. It’s a tiny hamlet just north of our park with horse paddocks, farm houses and a couple of corner stores.

We crowned the evening with a viewing of the final episode of Downton Abbey, Season 4, which we’d missed when it was broadcast. We’d managed to see all the other episodes during our travels, but couldn’t find a PBS station for the last show.  However, part of our lucky day yesterday included a visit to the Barnes and Noble bookstore near the cinema, where we found the DVD set, and, lucky us, got 30 per cent off at the cash register!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

With a little bit of luck

Hurricane, UT – My mother al-ways says it’s better to be born lucky than to be born rich.  Well, today we were lucky so many times we felt rich indeed.

The local TV news last night dissuaded us from visiting the big tourist spots today because it’s the March Break.  There can be long lineups, they warned, and we listened.

So, we decided to head into St George and visit the Camping World store. When we got there, we split up and had a good browse, and each of us found some neat gadgets for the RV. At the cash, we found out a number of the items were marked down significantly, so that sweetened the deal!

Just down the road Val spotted the Stephen Wade Honda dealer. He’d been hoping to find out if we could get the tires rotated because the front tires were a bit worn from being towed for so many miles. The service guy, Taylor, said it would be no problem and he could do it for us right away!  He also invited us to help ourselves to snacks and juice in the waiting area, and there was today’s local paper to read while we waited.  A short time later, Taylor came to tell us the job was done, and have a great day.  When Val asked what we owed him, he said “no charge”!

The town of St George is surrounded by walls of red rock and sculpted cliffs, and we drove up to the rim for a better look at the beautiful scenery that we had passed so quickly yesterday. The Pioneer Park offers parking spaces for visitors, as well as a paved roadway between the huge rock formations. We opted to walk the paths and climb over the massive red stones on foot, and were rewarded with a fabulous view over the entire valley where the city lay below and the mountains surrounding it. Lots of other visitors – some coming by the bus load – were scrambling over the rocks as well.

We continued our drive around the upper rim where many beautiful homes in gated communities also took advantage of the view. The houses were made of concrete (we saw one under construction) and covered with stucco in the same hues as the rocks, with tile rooves  and yards landscaped with rocks, gravel and local desert plants. Every home was neat as a pin!

Our route took us back into the city, with time to browse an-other out-door gear store before we headed for the cinema.  We’d been hoping to see Nebraska, an Oscar-nominated film, and, lucky for us, we found it was still showing in town.  It was also just a few blocks from the outdoor store.

The black-and-white picture relates a charming story of an aging man, who is convinced that he had won a million dollars by a deviously-worded subscription scheme. His son tries to explain the scam, but in the end helps his dad with his stubborn mission to collect his prize. Their adventures are beautifully and humorously related and the end is very satisfying.

Our server at the Italian restaurant where we went for dinner after the movie was the one who told us the March Break was ending this weekend. That made it even better that we’d been able to extend our stay here to fully explore all this area has to offer. Better to be born lucky!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Roadside geology class

Hurricane, UT – Some driving days get us from point A to point B, but others give us a whole series of amazing experiences. On this trip, we’ve had far more of the latter than the former, but today would be well up the list of the better drives.

Although Ely was very close to the Nevada/Utah state line, we remained in Nevada for much of the distance today, because not long after leaving, we turned south and traveled parallel to the state line.  The Wilson Creek mountain range remained on our left for a good part of the morning, and while we reached altitudes of up to 7000 feet, the highway was flat for long stretches.

We stopped at a small rest area after an hour or so and got out to breathe the clear air.  It was good to be outside and hear the birds and the wind, and to look across the vast land and admire the snow-capped mountains in the distance.

At the end of one valley, as the road began to rise again, we arrived in Pioche, named after Francois Pioche, a San Francisco financier, who bought the town in 1869.  It had a wild west reputation, with gunfights and saloons, and a history of silver and nickel mining. We saw the wooden platform at the edge of town where buckets delivered ore along overhead cables.

We pulled over to take a couple of pictures and just as we stopped, I saw a mule deer walking across the highway and down the embankment about 100 feet ahead of us.  I went to the edge of the highway and looked down, and there he was, looking right back at me with his large ears on high alert!

More wildlife awaited us as we approached Enterprise, just over the Utah state line. This time it was perky little prairie dogs on the grassy shoulder of the highway, popping up on their hind legs to sniff the air and scamper away.  I saw dozens of them, which was fun for me but must have been a pain for the farmers growing their corn and hay in the nearby fields.

A local resident at the Enterprise fueling station told us that these crops were mainly for the dairy industry, which was very strong in the area.  Some 5000 dairy cows are raised there, and milked on an automated carrousel that reads their vital details from computer chips in their ear tags.

Highway 18, along the southwest corner of Utah heading for St. George, has a spectacular geological display of rock formations and grooved canyon walls, with sedimentary bands in a whole range of colours.  As we neared the town, we drove along the Red Hills Parkway, aptly named for the deep, rust red canyon walls on either side.  We were amazed by the beauty and grandeur, and determined to come back later in the car for a better look.

The route from St. George to Hurricane and our RV park took us past Quail Creek State Park, situated next to a reservoir.  The turquoise green water made a spectacular contrast against the red, brown, tan and white stripes of the rock walls next to it.  And tonight, we watched a bright full moon rise above the rocky hill behind our site.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The loneliest highway

 Ely, NV – After many weeks of vigilance and pressure on congested California highways, where ag-gressive drivers zing in and out of lanes or tailgate at high speeds, today’s drive across Nevada was a true tonic for Val.

Highway 50, in our road atlas, is labeled “Lonliest Road” (sic) because there are few towns along the way and a vast expanse of high desert plains, intersected by mighty mountain ranges and domed by a huge sky.  That sky was a beautiful blue today, with a few wisps of high cloud, and the air was crystal clear.

The route is called the Lincoln Highway, and is noted as one of America’s scenic drives. The road itself was well-paved with narrow shoulders, cutting across the desert in a perfectly straight line most of the time, but also winding through mountain passes as our route took us past the Shoshone Mountain range, the Toiyabe range, the Toquima range and the Monitor range, like four huge ribs across the plain.

Many times as we rounded a curve in the highway we exclaimed “wow!” as another magnificent vista came into view – majestic mountains glistening with white snow on the peaks, and fringed with dark pine trees on their flanks.

Set against this backdrop were rolling foothills and plains, studded with sagebrush and low desert plants, as well as salt flats, a small stream every now and then, and cattle grazing the range.  We passed signs indicating the route of the Pony Express riders who carried mail and dispatches in the 1860s.

Austin and Eureka were the two towns we drove through on our 258-mile run today.  Both of them looked like they came straight out of a cowboy movie, with old wood-plank buildings complete with verandas and hitching posts, and brick general stores or hotels with faded signs painted on their sides. It wasn’t hard to picture a cowboy stepping out of a saloon – because we actually did in Austin, dressed in jeans, denim jacket and a large black Stetson!

Ely, where we are staying tonight, boasts a population of around 4,000, and a history based on copper mining and the railroad.  Copper dropped in price for a time, but has since seen a resurgence, so the mining continues here. New extraction techniques have also contributed to gold mining activity in places where earlier miners gave up. 

From our campsite we can look out the front window and see snow-capped mountains, and out the back win-dow, there’s another range of snow-capped mountains. The moon is almost full tonight, so it is shedding a silvery light on them as the last glow of sunset fades away.  And the quiet is almost palpable.

The water supply here is provided through heated underground pipes, but we are using our own tank again.  It is supposed to dip to 24 degrees F tonight, so we don’t want to risk a freeze.  The forecast, though, promises a pleasant day tomorrow in the mid-60s. Happy trails.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Up, down, hot, cold, lush, dry

Fallon, NV – We’re now in Nevada! And even though we covered 148 miles, it seems like we've en-tered another world. When we got on Highway 50 this morning the day was beauti-fully clear.  The road continued to rise as we got closer to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Lake Tahoe, and the temperature did just the opposite.

Glimpses of snow-capped peaks became more frequent, and then, when we rounded a bend, we saw the white stuff on the ground by the highway – just little patches in the shadiest spots, but snow nonetheless.  Magnificent ponderosa pine trees lined either side of the highway, tall and dark green, throwing cool shadows across the road.

We passed a couple of small towns, but the one that made us laugh was Kyburz. There was one lone truckstop with a sign that read: “Welcome to Kyburz. Now leaving Kyburz.” It may as well have added “don’t blink!”

Four, five, six thousand feet of elevation, noted the roadside signs. And on the RV’s thermometer, the numbers plunged from 17C to 11C and even down to 3 degrees Celsius.

At a pullout, we left the highway to really take in the scenery.  Under a bright blue sky, pine trees stood tall and behind them were folds of mountains, richly green with forest and, further away, white with snow.  A bright blue tongue of water was visible in the distance; our first glimpse of Lake Tahoe.  We shivered in our light clothing when the breeze whisked past us, and Val couldn’t resist picking up some roadside snow to toss a snowball. (Not at me!)

The road took a steep decline as we approached the town of South Lake Tahoe.  We were hoping for a pullout once we got closer to have a good look.  We did see the lake’s beautiful blue water, studded with whitecaps, in between a few buildings.  From that point on we passed casino after wedding chapel after hamburger joint after condo, without any public spaces in between. To be fair, there were pullouts around the east side of the lake, but they were all on our left side with almost no warning to allow us to slow down and make a turn. Too bad.

By the time we were on that side of the lake, we had left California with nary a sign to indicate that we had crossed the state line. And then came the large, frequent and generous pullouts! None with a view of the lake!  But we stopped anyway for lunch and took in great lungsful of clear mountain air.
In no time, we had descended from the mountains and were in a completely different landscape of high desert plains studded with sagebrush and hardly a tree anywhere. We passed through Carson City, Nevada’s capital, and on through Dayton and Silver Springs – all with a distinctive cowboy-western look and feel, with corrals and tumbleweed and big sky. Such a contrast!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Rich man, poor man

Placerville, CA – After picking up some brochures at the KOA office, we decided to drive in to Placerville and visit some local museums. The GPS took us there in an easterly direction via the state highway, and as we came to a rise of land, off in the distance was a breathtaking view of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, all white with snow, and the rolling green foothills between us and the horizon.

When we arrived at the town’s museum, we found out it was closed.  It’s not exactly high season for tourism right now, so we weren’t too surprised. After driving around a bit, we spotted the Chamber of Commerce with a “Visitor Center” sign, plus a city lot across from it offering two hours of free parking.

Brooks was the name of the woman who greeted us inside and offered lots of useful tips and advice about visiting the area, as well as more maps and brochures.  The main street of Placerville has lots of vintage buildings, and we stopped for a tasty lunch at Bricks, on Brooks’s recommendation.  We also visited the hardware store down the street, which has been in continuous operation since 1849!  It had worn wooden floors, stone interior walls and a huge inventory of fascinating items.

We headed out of town, after our little stroll, on Highway 49 toward Coloma, the town where the discovery of gold triggered one of the biggest migrations of people in US history. The highway had more twists and turns than any other we’ve been on this trip, through hills and valleys, and with almost no shoulders at all.  It also had lovely rural scenery of small farms, grazing sheep and trees with spring-fattened buds.

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park is the name of the former town of Coloma, which is now almost entirely made up of preserved historic buildings. The spot was chosen in the late 1840s for its river and for the tall ponderosa pines – a perfect setting for a sawmill that would provide wood for the construction of buildings in New Helvetia, the town 45 miles to the west that would later become Sacramento.

James Mar-shall was the partner of town builder John Sutter, and the man who would construct and run the sawmill.  Workers had dug a chan-nel from the American River for the sawmill, but it needed to be deeper. After further digging, Marshall went, on the morning of January 24, 1848, to inspect the watercourse, and noticed some shiny flecks in the water.  He picked them up and had a closer look, and realized it was gold.

His comment about the discovery to the sawmill workers was like a match striking dry grass.  Word of it spread like wildfire, and the Gold Rush was launched.  Thousands came to seek their fortune.  Marshall’s life did not unfold as one might have imagined, however.  The sawmill was abandoned, and his efforts to find more gold were not successful.  He bought land and cultivated grapes, but by the time he died, at age 74, he was alone with only $200 to his name.  Ironically, the monument that was later raised to honour his role in US history cost $9,000 to build!